There’s something about trombone players and our toys. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re not near as bad as trumpet players. I only own about 25 mouthpieces; however, I’m embarrassed to say I do own 7 different straight mutes… must be all that time hanging out with trumpet players, who always seem to have some crazy new mute to try… “Have you heard the new XYZ cup mute? It’s made out of titanium, with a rosewood bottom, and organic whiskey-pressed hemp corks!” No joke, it’s like a disease with these people…
So, after all that, what am I gonna post this week? Yep, a GEAR REVIEW. Groan. But, hey, it’s cool recording gear, so it’s all good!
A friend just asked today what kind of digital recorder I recommend, with the choices being made up of the Zoom family of recorders that have XLR mic inputs. I own and use a Zoom H5 regularly, and that’s what I suggested to him as a good tool for his needs. So, I decided a full review is in order!
Now, there are plenty of places to go for technical details, sampling rates, nitty-gritty that many people are into, but most people can’t hear/use/tell anyway when it comes to technology. What I wanted to review was the ways you can USE this piece of tech. I’ve had my H5 for a year or so now, and it has so many uses, it’s hard to nail them all down. So, I’m going to talk about the features I use regularly, and that are particularly handy to the performing/rehearsing/practicing musician...
- Built in mics - pretty obvious, but this feature alone is what really built the Zoom family of recorders into the commonplace gear they have become… The H5 built in mics are fine. You have the option of swapping out the mic capsule/cartridge for some other options. Among those options are: a “better” pair of mics that allow 90 and 120 degree (ORTF) stereo angle (this mic comes standard on the H6), a mid-side mic capsule (similar to what the Zoom H2 does natively), a shotgun mic capsule, and another input containing to XLR combo inputs. It is important to note that when you add the additional XLR inputs via the cartridge, it does NOT provide phantom power… You would have to get that from somewhere else…
- Audio Interface mode - if you plug the Zoom in to your computer via USB, you get a selection menu on the H5 asking you if you want to use it as a card reader, or as an audio interface. Silly me, I didn’t realize when I bought it that it essentially does what other units like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 does… Allows you to run audio from your microphones into your computer for recording, plus monitor through headphones. Well, the Zoom does all that and then some! If I were starting over, I would just by the Zoom and save the $150 I spent on the Focusrite. I might note that I have had problems with my Scarlett 2i2 unit, but my Zoom has functioned flawlessly. Hmm…
- Phantom power and 2 XLR mic inputs - plug in your pro microphones as needed, and power them with the correct voltage, easy-peasy.
- Backup track - this has become a feature I rely on consistently. Oftentimes, when I’m the one performing, I want a recording but I may not have the time or focus to spend on getting recording levels set perfectly. I may arrive at a gig early, set up the recording gear, then I need to spend the rest of my pre-concert time warming up, preparing music, and getting ready to actually perform. The Zoom H5 will record a backup track, at -12db below the levels you set on the unit. This allows you to make your best guess as to what the best level is for your performance, but if you get it wrong and have some clipping, you can just use the lower level backup track as a substitute. With modern DAWs, this is very easy to do and get the same audio quality out of the lower gain track. Very handy.
- AA battery power - common battery anywhere in the world, and the unit runs a long time on a fresh set, enough said.
- Files/folder storage structure - I really like this feature. On the surface, and in its use, it seems to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but I find it very useful. I can record multiple practice sessions or performances, and just make each one a different folder. Useful for when I’m too lazy to go home and download what I’ve recorded, right away, or for when I need to preserve multiple sessions on the same memory card.
- tripod mount - 1/4”-20 female thread on the bottom, makes this unit easy to mount on a camera tripod. I carry a Bogen tabletop tripod with mine, which keeps it stable on whatever surface I rest it.
- Audio-for-video - mount the H5 on the hot shoe of your DSLR and you can connect it to the audio in of your camera. On some DSLRs, you may need an aftermarket cable, but you will be able to provide excellent audio to your videos, as well as monitor your audio through headphones while you’re recording. Alternatively, use your smartphone for the video and record your audio separately on the Zoom, then sync up in your editing software. Use a loud clap at the beginning of your video to give yourself a sharp spike in the audio waveform - this will make aligning to the video and audio very easy.
- Multi-channel recording ability - normally, the H5 is set up to record through its stereo microphone pair. If you set it to multi-channel recording, you may record separate inputs simultaneously. I most often use this to record through my Rode NT1s as a stereo pair, while adding my Rode Videomic Pro through the line in/mic-in jack located right by the built in microphone pair. Very handy. You can also use the stereo pair built in to the Zoom as well as a separate pair of lavalier mics for video dialogue.
So, as you can see, there are a ton of ways to use the Zoom H5 as a creative tool, and to make it the cornerstone of your portable audio/video setup. Like I said, no crazy technical discussion with this review, but I wanted to highlight some real world functions that make these little units such a great investment for the performing musician. For sheer portability, versatility, and ease of use, the H5 is very hard to beat. If you need 4 mic preamps, go ahead and get the H6. If you just need the most basic of the basic, check out the H1 and H2. The small size and mid-side stereo capabilities of the H2 are quite amazing for the price. Here’s my favorite places to purchase the H5: B&H Photo-Video, Adorama Camera, and Amazon.
Thanks for reading, as always. If you have found other handy uses for the Zoom series of recorders, please post in the comments! If you aren’t subscribed to the Virtual Trombonist, then please sign up!